City of Ithaca tries something new with scratch-off parking tags

Almost a year since the City of Ithaca started replacing parking meters with solar-powered paystations and a smartphone app, drawing confusion and complaints, city officials say they’re adding a new option: pre-paid scratch-off parking tags.

Last year, self-service paystations started appearing on blocks in Downtown Ithaca and Collegetown, and the City started to remove coin-operated meters on those blocks. But one thing that sparked confusion and frustration was that the City added the paystations in stages, not only in small sections in town, but with only one unit per block at first.  “I would love two machines on some of the blocks, especially where there is a busy street, but we only got so much budget to work with and had to spread them thin this time out,” Frank Nagy, the City of Ithaca’s Director of Parking, told us last summer. “We have asked for more budget for 2016,” he adds, which will allow the City to expand to other areas that still have meters, and fill in a second paystation on busy blocks. That will reduce the need to wait to cross a busy street to find a paystation.

More paystations, less jaywalking

More paystations, closer together, will help alleviate concerns about elderly or handicapped motorists having to dart across the street to pay for parking, too. Another solution for those folks, though, is the City’s new scratch-off parking tags, which go on sale Monday.Additional paystations have started to pop up this spring, which should help reduce the confusion and inconvenience surrounding their use: they’ll be closer together, there will be one on each side of the street in most cases, and you’re more likely to be able to spot one from where you parked. Nagy says there are 23 new units being installed in Downtown and Collegetown. There’s a delay between installation of the new units and activation, though, so if you spot a paystation that’s still wrapped in plastic, look around for another, or use the Parkmobile app.

Another choice: scratch-off hang tags

“We heard from many people that the parking pay machines are spaced too far apart, they are confusing to use, and the use of smartphones and payment apps are not for everyone,” Nagy said in a statement. “We listened carefully to this feedback and took the next step to make parking even easier.”

The scratch-off tags will be sold at the City Chamberlain’s Office in City Hall on East Green Street, and “most locations where city trash tags are sold,” beginning on Monday, June 20th. They’ll be available in set increments of 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour, 1.5 hours, and two hours. To use one, “parkers simply have to scratch off the appropriate date and time and then hang the card from the rearview mirror or leave it on the dashboard of your car,” says the statement.

That date-and-time step is important. Motorists must scratch off the date and time they’re stepping out of their vehicle, and they must do it correctly, or parking enforcement officers will issue a ticket. Since these are largely aimed at older and less tech-savvy members of the population, who may be more forgetful than most, that’s a real concern. Frank Nagy and Mayor Myrick, who has also addressed the parking issue, did not respond to our questions about the scratch-off tag system.

We know that people forget to scratch off the date when using similar daily parking permits on the Cornell campus, and get a pricey ticket to show for it. There are similar issues in places like Portland, Hoboken, Palo Alto, and Chicago, where such permits are commonly used for visitors to residential areas or for handicapped parkers. To some extent, this is the responsibility of the motorist who’s opted to use a pre-paid parking tag rather than use a paystation or smartphone app, but even in the City’s example photo showing a motorist hanging a parking scratch tag from her rearview mirror, the tag hasn’t had the date and time scratched off.

Despite our concern about another opportunity for confusion, we’re glad the City of Ithaca is trying something as an alternative to the paystations and the Parkmobile smartphone app.

Use Parkmobile, for a price

We should add that Parkmobile isn’t just for smartphone users. Motorists can call 877-727-5730 from any phone to pay for parking with a credit card. Whether you pay at a paystation, with the Parkmobile app, or by telephone, you can get a notification or text-message reminder when your paid time is nearly up, and can choose to add more time right from the phone. There’s a convenience fee on top of the parking fee, and a 75-cent minimum extension, but of course that’s cheaper than a parking ticket.

What about those fees and minimums? In theory, they reflect the fact that Parkmobile uses credit cards rather than cash, incurring merchant card processing fees. (The fee is charged not by the City but by the provider.) You can avoid most fees by paying with a credit card at a paystation, though there’s a minimum 75-cent charge (which currently pays for a half hour) even if you’re just running into a store for five minutes. Or there’s no minimum or convenience fee when paying with coins at the paystation, Nagy pointed out to us last summer. “Whatever a nickel buys, a nickel buys.”

The convenience fees and minimums also should go away if you take advantage of the new Parkmobile Wallet feature, which allows you to pay Parkmobile a chunk up front (you decide how much) and then have them deduct your parking charges from that balance each time you use the app. No such luck, though. There’s a slight discount on the Parkmobile transaction fee if you use your pre-paid Parkmobile Wallet balance to park at Cornell, but there’s no discount on the transaction fee in City of Ithaca parking spaces. Mr. Nagy and Mayor Myrick also did not respond to our question about this issue.

Speaking of what a nickel buys, it’s not much. When the City of Ithaca installed the paystations last summer, they raised the price for an hour of parking to $1.50, up from $1 or, in some areas of town, less. Nagy’s nickel will buy you just two minutes at a downtown meter (a few remain) or at a paystation, which does indeed take coins and dollar bills.

“I used a regular parking meter on State Street this morning, and was surprised that my quarter only bought me ten minutes,” a reader told us last year. If the City finds parking spaces are underused as drivers avoid the hourly rate, they would be able to easily reprogram the paystations — remotely — to a lower rate. Or, they could set different hourly rates for different parts of town, as has been true in the past with the mechanical meters. That’s potentially complicated by one nice feature of the paystations: once you’ve paid for parking, you can move your car to a different part of Ithaca and keep parking until your time expires. That lessens the likelihood or impact of the “Oops!” moment when you realize a store is closed after you’ve paid for an hour of parking and have nothing else to do on that block, but it means you might be overpaying if you move to a lower-priced zone, or underpaying if you move to a higher-priced one. We’d still like to see Ithaca charge less in zones with lower demand, which seems like a better idea than having large stretches of parking spaces go unused because people can park just a little farther away for free.

Shouldn’t all parking be free?

In an ideal world, there would be plenty of room to park right in front of the store you’re visiting to shop, free of charge. Free parking would encourage business by bringing shoppers and diners to neighborhoods with stores and restaurants. It also would help those neighborhoods compete with the stores in the vast seas of asphalt on the edge of town, where there’s parking galore.

In reality, limited space in busy and dense downtown shopping districts requires turnover that free parking tends to discourage. Nearby residents or shop owners might leave their cars taking up what could be valuable customer parking for hours, or all day, or for multiple days. Some downtowns have free parking but set a two-hour limit, though that requires either lots of staff time or lots of equipment (such as license plate readers) to enforce.

A good compromise is for merchants to subsidize parking for customers, either with tokens or stickers as Downtown Ithaca has tried in the past, or by applying the parking cost (or part of it) to a purchase.

We strongly urge the City and Downtown Ithaca Alliance to work together promptly on a plan that will let shoppers park for free for an hour or two. It’s nice that some merchants are doing this on their own, but it creates an unnecessary hodge-podge for customers and area residents.

How’s paid parking enforced?

Ithaca’s parking patrol vehicles (as well as some police vehicles) are now equipped with license plate scanners, which will automatically see who’s parked on a block as the vehicle goes by. A license plate that doesn’t match one that has paid for parking, or whose parking has expired, will be flagged — and the officer can stop and write a ticket. The same tools will allow the City to more effectively enforce parking limits even where there isn’t paid parking: vehicles left in one spot longer than 72 hours are considered abandoned, and may be towed at the owner’s expense.

One source of confusion is that you need to enter your license plate number on the parking paystation, so some drivers have found they have to go back to the car to check it. The good news is that this means you don’t have to return to your car to leave a receipt on the windshield, as you did with early paystation systems used in Ithaca. The system keeps track of which vehicles have been paid for.

Room for confusion

As Nagy told us last summer, the poles where meters used to be are being removed in many parts of town, and they’re not being replaced with lines delineating parking spaces. That should allow more cars to park than might fit otherwise, since the lines would have to be painted to accommodate the biggest passenger vehicles. Of course, without lines, some drivers might not do a good job of leaving room for others, as we see on blocks without specific spaces as it is.

The meters did a good job, though, of signaling where you had to pay to park, in a city with many streets or blocks where there’s always free parking. (On some blocks, there’s even free parking on one side of the street and paid parking on the other.) Now, city officials have realized, they have to put up more signs to clearly identify where motorists have to pay to park. They’ve also realized “Two Hour Parking” signs in the busiest sections of Downtown Ithaca or Collegetown could confuse newcomers into thinking there’s two-hour free parking, and added small “Pay to Park” signs below them.

The bottom line

Let me be clear: I’m glad the City of Ithaca is adding new options so people can choose the parking payment approach that’s most comfortable for them. After a year of complaints and confusion, it’s nice to see they’re listening to at least some of the feedback they’re hearing.

We hope parking staff will issue warnings for a while, not expensive tickets, as people figure out how to use the scratch-off hang tags — which, it’s important to remember, mean they’ve paid to park. We hope the City will work with Parkmobile to reduce or eliminate minimums and “convenience fees” when people are trying to pay to park, especially when they’re paying out of a declining debit account that means no merchant transaction fee is actually being incurred. And we hope to see City officials, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance and Collegetown Business Alliance, and merchants working together on a comprehensive approach to offering free parking to welcome the people spending money in our business districts.

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